Thus spoke AudioQuest's Steve Silberman, VP of development, of their brand-new USB D/A converter, the DragonFly. "There are a lot of very good DACs out there," he continued. "There are even a lot of very good affordable DACs. But the problem is, people outside of audio don't want them: They don't want old-style components like that.
I was setting up for some musical demonstrations I was to present for a Music Matters evening at the ListenUp! store in Boulder, Colorado, in May 2011. For these events, an audio store invites manufacturers (and the occasional journalist) to demonstrate to local audiophiles the musical benefits of high-end audio playback. In Boulder, I was to share the store's big listening room with Dave Nauber, president of Classé Audio, who had set up a system with B&W Diamond 802 speakers, a Classé stereo amplifier, and a preproduction sample of Classé's new CP-800 preamplifier ($5000), all hooked up with AudioQuest cable. I unpacked my MacBook, with which I was going to play the high-resolution master files of some of my Stereophile recordings, and looked around for a DAC. There wasn't one.
When it comes to getting audio from a PC via its USB port, the buzzword du jour is asynchronous. This cryptic term refers to which device has control over the timing of the audio data being streamed from the computer: the computer itself, or the device receiving the data. It might seem logical to have the computer control the timing, but this is not so. When digital audio data are converted to analog by a D/A converter, control over exactly when each dataword is converted is critical for the best quality of sound. Any uncertainty in that timing manifests itself as analog distortion, aka jitter.
Who wants only a digital-to-analog converter when you can have a DAC with benefits? How about if those benefits also come with some high-resolution attitude?
That's what I pondered while setting up the NAD M51 ($2000). Sure, it's a basic DAC, but it also has extraslike HDMI inputs, remote-controlled volume, a polarity switch, and one of my favorite features on any DAC: a display that tells you which sampling rate the thing is locked to.
It's common knowledge that manufacturers tune the sound of each DAC model. There are the facts of product design and marketing: inputs, outputs, case materials, price points. After that, what's left are the trade-offs of different circuit designs and filter options, which are chosen with careeach has a subtle yet telling effect on a DAC's sound. Most designers try to go from bits to analog with minimal deviation from perfect. But when you look at the measurements and listen closely, you realize that perfect is elusive. One has to make choices.
Computer audio is more than just a pleasant distraction. For the jaded reviewer, USB digital converters and the like are an escape from that humdrum, if only because they bring with them so many variables: myriad combinations of different platforms, storage devices, operating systems, device drivers, media players, codecs, word lengths, sampling rates, connection protocols, and more. Challenging though they may be, computer-audio products are a tonic for reviewers inclined toward apathy.
The taxonomy of audio products used to be easy. An amp, a preamp, speakers, a disc player or twodone. Now that hard drives, streaming clouds, and computers have entered the scene, unless your world revolves around only an iPod or a disc player, you have choiceslots of choices.
Back in the late 1980s, it seemed a good idea: Separate a CD player's transport section from its D/A circuitry so that each could be optimally designed, and, as D/A technology improved, the sound of your CD player could be upgraded by replacing the outboard D/A processor. The catch was that the transport and D/A chassis needed to be connected with a serial data link: S/PDIF in optical or electrical flavors, or balanced AES/EBU. To minimize the number of cables required, the format of that link embedded the clock data within the audio data, which rendered the link sensitive to interface timing uncertainty, or jitter. (See "Bits Is Bits?," by Malcolm Hawksford and Chris Dunn.)
One of the better digital front-ends I've ever heard was demonstrated for me a number of years ago at the house of an audiophile friend: a Weiss Engineering combo of Jason CD transport and Medea digital-to-analog converter. That front-end remains in my mind as one of the only digital systems I've heard that could compete with the very best that vinyl has to offer while still doing what digital does best. In other words, there were warmth and musicality, staggering dynamics, and real silent backgrounds. When, recently, I saw that the Swiss company had come out with a DAC featuring onboard volume control, a headphone amp, and a FireWire input, I knew I had to give it a listen.
There's so much uncertainty and confusion surrounding computer audio and high-resolution downloads. Which hi-rez formats will win out? How do you store the downloads you've bought? (Easy. Don't buy them.) How do you access them? Will digital rights management (DRM) cramp your style, or data-storage fees for cloud computing crumple your wallet?
I've been reading a fascinating book, Leonard Shlain's The Alphabet Versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image (New York: Viking, 1998). Shlain's thesis is that the invention of the alphabet was the cause of immense changes in primitive society, upsetting previously widespread norms of gender equality and horizontal (rather than hierarchical) social relations in general.
Sure, Stereophile gets letters to the editor. We also get some colorful responses for our "Manufacturers' Comments" section. (Vince Bruzzese and Roy Hall are literary standouts among their component-making peers.) And, as one of the magazine's Contributing Editors (Audio), I get lots of personal mail from readers seeking my advice. I thought I might share some of these letters with you, and my responses.
If an audiophile visiting an audio show in 1991 were to have been transported two decades into the future, at first he would not be aware of any difference: A two-channel system would be playing in a hotel room. But on closer inspection, he would notice that the CD player, the ubiquitous source 20 years ago, would be conspicuous by its absence. Yes, there might be a turntable"Good to see that people are playing LPs in the future," he would thinkbut why is there a PC in the room?
In the early 1980s, when CDs began trickling out of the few existing pressing plants, they were such rare and exotic objects that Aaron's Records, on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles, kept them secured under lock and key in a tall glass cabinet. A customer forsaking vinyl would enter the store and, with great fanfare, announce the decision by dropping a load of LPs on the front counter with a disgusted thud. Then, in a ceremony resembling a rabbi removing the sacred scrolls of the Torah from the ark, the customer would approach the glass cabinet. An employee would unlock and swing open the doors, and, under that watchful gaze, the customer would choose from among a scattering of titles, carefully avoiding any disc that did not include the Strictly Kosher mark of "DDD."
The dual subwoofers were bumping and our pant legs were flapping. Only moments before, we'd been treated to a polite viola da gamba. Not now. Resolution Audio's designer, Jeff Kalt, had brought only two discs with him to ensure that his company's Cantata Music Center was functioning properly in my system: Jordi Savall and Hespérion XXI's Altre Follie, 15001750 (CD, Alia Vox 9844), and Tool's 10,000 Days (CD, Tool Dissectional/Volcano 81991). After changing a few things around with the chamber music, we'd advanced to the hard rock of Tool.